A federal judge's decision striking down California's death penalty would be unlikely to receive a warm reception from the U.S. Supreme Court, which repeatedly has turned away similar challenges during the past 20 years, according to The National Law Journal.
U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of Santa Ana, Calif., ruled on July 16 in Jones v. Chappell that the state's death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The state’s death penalty, he held, is arbitrary and no longer serves the purposes of deterrence and retribution because of systemic delays.
Those delays exceed 25 years on average, said Carney, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, and "are inherent to California's dysfunctional death penalty system, not the result of individual inmates' delay tactics, except perhaps in isolated cases."
The national average of time to execution was an estimated 12.5 years between 2000 and 2012. In 2012, the delay increased to 15.8 years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris had yet to announce whether she would appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
"It doesn’t totally surprise me that every few years a judge will speak honestly about what's going on," said death penalty litigator Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. "Although some people would disagree with his legal conclusion, most people don’t disagree with his analysis of how things are functioning."
Carney's decision differed from rulings by other state and federal judges who have identified various problems with death sentences, said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"The judge here has pulled together all of the ways the system is dysfunctional," she said. "He is not challenging the policy per se; he is saying that in practice, this isn't working in a constitutional way. His analysis is applicable to the rest of the country. It has implications certainly for the Supreme Court, but also for policy analysis."
In his 29-page Jones decision, Carney wrote that since 1978, when California voters restored the death penalty, more than 900 people have been sentenced to death. Of that number, he said, 13 have been executed.
In my book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 I made similar argument about the arbitrary way in which the death penalty is carried out.
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